Painful history, beautiful music
SAN FRANCISCO - Tulsa’s native sons are on the road, telling a dark and painful story about a long-suppressed chapter of Oklahoma’s history.
At a performance two weeks ago at the Bay Area’s premiere funk venue, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey settled into a rollicking locomotive groove evoking the territory dance bands that crisscrossed the Southwest during Prohibition. But when the group lurched suddenly into “The Burning,’’ the second movement in its extraordinary, evening-length “Race Riot Suite,’’ the wailing horns seemed to tear away the familiar, zany images of Lindy Hoppers, revealing the horrific, unpunished violence that reduced the nation’s wealthiest African-American community to ashes.
In the midst of an extensive US tour that brings the band to the Boston area tonight for the first in a series of gigs at the Lily Pad, the quartet is focusing on music from its new album “Race Riot Suite,’’ which was inspired by the 1921 pogrom that destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, the Negro Wall Street. Though the riot killed dozens and destroyed some 35 city blocks, leaving the city’s 10,000 black residents homeless, it was largely covered up and left out of historical accounts until the state issued a formal report in 2001.
“I grew up in Tulsa and the first I heard about it was in high school, but there wasn’t a lot of information available,’’ said Jacob Fred steel guitarist Chris Combs, the suite’s composer, over a meal with the band after the soundcheck. “I didn’t realize it was the worst race riot in the country and that it was unique in so many ways. The information is out there now, but it’s surprising how hard you had to look to find it.’’
Jacob Fred roared out of Tulsa in the mid-1990s and built up an avid national following through incessant touring and a savvy balance of sonically expansive improvisation and inviting grooves. The name is the product of an absurdist sense of humor and doesn’t refer to anyone who’s played in the band, but the moniker stuck. After more than a decade as a trio, the group expanded to a quartet, and the latest incarnation features Kansas City, Mo., bassist Jeff Harshbarger, Tulsa drummer Josh Raymer, and pianist Brian Haas, the only original member left.
Just as significant as the fact that white Tulsans are shining a light on their city’s festering history is the music itself. Combs’s first extended work is a beautifully orchestrated, melodically rich piece that celebrates Greenwood as much as it laments the wanton violence that destroyed the neighborhood. He composed the suite for a nonet, and the band recruited an all-star horn section for the recording, including Sex Mob trumpeter-arranger Steven Bernstein, who joins Jacob Fred on Oct. 20, and Kansas City, Mo., tenor saxophonist Mark Southerland, who plays on all the Lily Pad dates.
“It’s brilliant, some of the best writing I’ve ever played,’’ said Bernstein, an esteemed arranger who writes for his own large ensemble, the Millennial Territory Orchestra. “With horns, most people write the same old thing, with the horns blocked together. This is more like Mingus or Thad Jones. Each horn has its own melody, not just stacked harmonies. As a horn player, there’s a lot of room for individual expression in each line. He sounds like he’s really inspired by the 1920s, but he’s not trying to re-create anything.’’
Beethoven provided another source of inspiration. In spring 2010, the quartet was neck deep in “Ludwig,’’ a project presented by the OK Mozart festival featuring Jacob Fred’s collaboration with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra playing jazz-tinged arrangements of Beethoven’s 3d and 6th Symphonies. After wrestling with the scores for eight to 10 hours a day - hardly the typical fare for a steel guitarist - Combs found himself working through musical ideas in the wee hours, devising melodic fragments and lines. At the same time, he was reading into the history of the 1921 attack. His emotional response infused the music, but the suite didn’t start to coalesce until a European tour.
“Chris kept bringing in these incredible themes and progressions and I realized he isn’t working on a couple of pieces, it’s a long-form work,’’ Haas recalled. “We’re fans of Ellington’s suites, but it was out of Beethoven that we started conceiving this. It’s our first record where there’s one composer top to bottom. That’s totally changed my concept of what this band can be.’’
The suite has also radically changed the band’s relationship with its hometown. Jacob Fred premiered the seven-part suite at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center in May, just days before the 90th anniversary of the deadly riot. Weeks later the band returned to perform a concert arranged by members of the city’s African-American community. “It’s definitely provoked a lot of arguments and discussions,’’ Haas said. “I can say it feels like the ancestors gather whenever we play it. There’s the sensation of something much bigger than us going on.’’
Andrew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.